Eve of Destruction

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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Eve of Destruction
Photo by Joel Bellman From left, John York (former Byrds bassist), Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction” vocalist), McCabe’s Guitar Store, Santa Monica, 2013.
The Eastern world, it is explodin’ Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’ You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’ You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’ —“Eve of Destruction”, P.F. Sloan (1965) Where have all the protest songs gone? Great crises inspire great art, and the turmoil of the early ‘60s inspired more than its share of great art in the form of protest music. In earlier eras, you were more likely to hear politically charged ballads or agit-prop sing-alongs on small left-wing labels or live in union-hall or college concerts. But fueled in part by the civil rights movement and the Cuban missile crisis, the folk boom sparked by Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in 1963 streaked like a meteor though the record charts. For several years, it blazed brightly until flaming out by 1966, when the pop charts splintered into shards of psychedelia, blues, and various other commercial genres and sub-genres. Disappointing dedicated folkies, Dylan had already left the building, heading for the exit with the partly electrified Another Side of Bob Dylan in mid-1964. But the following year, he enraged them by striking off in a new and fully amped-up rock direction with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, released only five months apart in 1965 During Dylan’s legendary but brief electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, which took place in between the two albums’ release, some audience members loudly booed; backstage, godfather of American folk music Pete Seeger was ready to take an axe to the sound cables. Whether it was the set’s deafening volume or audio distortion, its brevity, or its electricity, enraged folkies were dumping Dylan just as the rest of the pop world embraced him. If Dylan was done with social protest, the pop charts were not. LA was gradually eclipsing New York as the center of American ’60s pop music. Picking up where Dylan left off, the Byrds melded folk and country while the Turtles took their surf roots and tossed in some teenage snarl, and here the new genre of “folk-rock” was born: politically charged, accessible, but most importantly, radio-friendly. Don’t you understand what I’m trying to say? Can’t you feel the fear that I’m feeling today? If the button is pushed, there’s no running away There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave Take a look around you boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction Phil Sloan, the song’s 19-year-old composer, had already found success cranking out surf and hot-rod songs as a staff writer for a music publisher when in mid-1964, inspired by Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the evening news, he had a sort of religious epiphany and quickly knocked off “Eve” and two other songs. Singer Barry McGuire, who’d previously scored a hit as the vocalist on “Green, Green” for the New Christy Minstrels, had meanwhile been looking for new material to launch a solo career, and wound up in the office of Sloan’s music publisher. In July 1965, while Dylan was busy on the East Coast rehearsing for Newport, McGuire picked four of Sloan’s songs to record, and rushed through a rough take of “Eve” at the end of a long night, backed by members of the Wrecking Crew, LA’s top-tier session players. The song might have been buried as a single b-side until a DJ in the Midwest flipped over the record, and the rest is history. By October, it rocketed up to #1 on the Billboard and Cashbox charts. Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’ I’m sittin’ here just contemplatin’ I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation And marches alone can’t bring integration When human respect is disintegratin’ This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’ For me, at least, the song has lost none of its potency over the years. It’s shocking and depressing how relevant its lyrics remain, a sharp reminder that in very fundamental ways, we haven’t made as much progress over the past six decades as we might think. Think of all the hate there is in Red China Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama Ah, you may leave here for four days in space But when you return, it’s the same old place The poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace You can bury your dead but don’t leave a trace Hate your next door neighbor but don’t forget to say grace And you tell me over and over and over and over again my friend You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction It would be Barry McGuire’s only solo commercial hit. After becoming lost in the drug haze of hippiedom and hitting bottom, in the early ’70s he found Jesus and new recording success with a series of Christian music labels. More recently, he has performed a kind of musical memoir in small clubs and venues around town. Phil (P. F.) Sloan, despite his phenomenal teenage success, was badly treated by the music business and soon after suffered a nervous breakdown. Following years of mental illness and menial jobs (during which someone tried to steal his identity and claim credit for his songs, until he successfully sued), he emerged with some new recordings and a compelling memoir (co-written with Topangan Steve Feinberg), only to be fatally stricken with cancer a year after its publication. Yet that song outlives him. Racism, voting rights, political cowardice and hypocrisy, East-West conflict, war and nuclear annihilation are suddenly more urgent concerns than they’ve been in many years. Only last year, Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction” was rediscovered and reinterpreted yet again, by artist Casey Abrams, then and now a song for our troubled times: The virus hit, many isolated and ill The jobs disappearing, tryin’ to pay the bills A-hurricanes, floods, tornadoes are storming in Politicians claim that there ain’t no global warming Winds are a-blowing and fires are blazing Hills are scorched and no horses are a-grazing If you cross the man his words are escaping And ya tell me over and over and over again, my friend Well, you don’t believe that we’re on the eve of destruction
Joel Bellman

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March 18, 2022